Photo artist Shibu Arakkal's new show 'Mallaah' opens this weekend at Gallery G

The show captures the lesser-known boatmen of the Kumbh Mela
A still from the Mallaah series. Picture: Shibu Arakkal
A still from the Mallaah series. Picture: Shibu Arakkal

Dressed in a blue checkered lungi, paired with a coat and a vest, and a muffler around his head, a boatman gazes into the lens. He is a Mallaah (the word given to the community of boatmen). The picture was captured by photo artist Shibu Arakkal at the Maha Kumbh Mela earlier this year, as part of his new show, Mallaah.

Composed against the backdrop of the Triveni Sangam (confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati), the picture speaks volumes of man and his relationship with nature and religion. The show opens this weekend at Gallery G.

Making a splash
Although the Kumbh Mela is one of the most chronicled in the world, the Mallaahs (also called Nishad) who have been serving the pilgrims, visitors and tourists at the festival for centuries, are always overlooked.

However, Shibu who was commissioned by The Sandeep and Gitanjali Maini Foundation, reveals that initially, he wasn’t keen to take it forward, yet he changed his mind as he wanted to challenge himself. “I generally don’t touch religious and cultural subjects. But I realised that there was a massive challenge in terms of what I could do with a popular and mass subject like the Kumbh Mela. Also, for me, it was an opportunity to break from what I have done in the past,” says Shibu who spent eight days at Prayagraj, shooting images of the boatmen.

Pictorialist perspective
His approach, inspired by the works of 20th century Pictorialists, artistically captures this community in their element. All the 12 photographs are portraits of the skilled rowers with their boats and the river in the background. The colour palette is neutral, in keeping with his style. “It’s very intentional. Colour is only incidental in my work. I like the form, structure and concept to be the focus. For this series, I adopted a new technique. Visually, it is very soft. The images are blurred and hazy,” he says.

Unlike his usual interpretive pieces, this series of photographs, represents real people and their real life. As an artist, he felt drawn to the river and to these people who are so integral to the Mela. “In this case, I realised, I didn’t know enough to interpret it and so for the first time in my 24-year career, I am not doing an interpretation. It’s my representation of what I have seen, felt and understood of the Mallaahs. The Mallaahs are the children and guardians of the river but they are a vanishing community. It suddenly became a profound subject matter that I was deal ing wi th. I have tried to be extremely sensitive about the subject and these people,” he signs off.

Entry free. August 12 -September 9. At Gallery G, Lavelle Road

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